Tennessee adjunct faculty and graduate students join the Fight for $15

Adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on April 15 joined fast food and other low-wage workers at a local McDonald’s to demand that the minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour.

After rallying with their low-wage cohorts, the higher education workers board a freedom ride bus bound for St. Louis where they joined more low-wage workers participating in the national general strike for a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

The participating adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants are members of United Campus Workers (UCW), a statewide union of faculty, graduate students, and classified staff who make higher education work but are paid poverty and near-poverty wages. UCW is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America.

UCW members had planned to organize a Teach Out on poverty wages in the US as show of solidarity with the April 15 general strike, but inclement weather forced them to make other plans.

“We’re standing together with fast food workers this April 15‬ as they help lead the fight for $15 and a‪ u‬nion,” said a message on the UCW website announcing the Teach Out and other support activity for the Fight for $15. “Our state leads the country in poverty wage jobs–from fast food workers to adjuncts, custodians, and secretaries on our campuses. It’s going to take solidarity to win.”

UCW had urged faculty to show their solidarity with the striking low-wage workers by teaching their classes out of doors on April 15 and using a portion of their class time to educate students about why 60,000 low-wage workers and their supporters in more than 200 US cities were striking for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

UCW even prepared a lesson plan on the low-wage economy to assist those who wanted to participate in the Teach Out.

One of the main points in the lesson plan is that low-wage work is no longer a tiny fraction of the overall economy. Low-wage work is spreading throughout the economy, and a college degree no longer guarantees decent paying work.

In fact many highly educated people are working at UT Knoxville and other universities in Tennessee for very low wages.

Adjunct faculty at UT Knoxville are paid on average $2,700 per course per semester, says the lesson plan. “If an adjunct teaches three courses a semester, her income would fall below the poverty line.”

These poverty wages are the result of the UT Knoxville administration’s attempt to reduce labor costs after state leaders reduced funding for higher education, so that they wouldn’t have to raise taxes on the wealthy.

Unfortunately, lower labor costs have not resulted in lower tuition for students. Since 2008, tuition and fees at UT Knoxville have increased by 79 percent.

Students may think that they can avoid poverty wages by choosing the right major and landing a good paying job. Unfortunately, those good paying jobs are a small share of the overall job market.

The largest share of today’s job market are low-wage jobs such as those in the retail, hospitality, health care, and social services sectors of the economy.

John Schmid reporting for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes about the rise of the low-wage economy.  According to Schmid, there is some growth in good paying jobs among high tech workers, but low-wage jobs “have broadened outward like a pyramid with a disproportionately wide base.”

In St. Louis, where the Knoxville freedom ride ended, workers at a McDonald’s walked off the job and were cheered by a crowd of supporters holding signs reading Show Me $15, the name of the organization leading the Fight for $15 in Missouri.

Later in the day about 1,000 St. Louis fast food, retail, child care, and health care workers joined adjunct faculty and students for a rally and march at Washington University.

With low-wage work becoming the norm, the fight for a decent minimum wage is now more important than ever.

“This is a fight for equal opportunity, dignity, gender pay equality, and racial justice,” said UCW about the Fight for $15 on its website. “It’s a fight for what’s right. And it’s going to take all of us. We’re already turning the tide in favor of working people and our families, on campus and across this state.”



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